Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
Author: George Saunders
Primary Format: eBook, courtesy of NetGalley and Random House
Secondary Format: audiobook, read by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, and a full cast
Start Date: March 3, 2017
End Date: March 8, 2017
Rating: 3 to 3 1/2 stars
You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a – you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know. -Abraham Lincoln, to Willie
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is told over the course of a single night: February 22, 1862, two days after the passing of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie Lincoln. Distraught, Mr. Lincoln visits his son’s tomb in the middle of the night in an attempt to deal with his grief. Whilst there, unbeknownst to him, the spirit of his young son is watching him – along with a multitude of others.
This was definitely a unique book, I will give it that.
Lincoln in the Bardo alternated between two distinct formats:
The first format, describing (in detail) the events around the time of Willie’s death, was told through first-person accounts, quoted directly from reference books. However, I don’t think it lent itself well to the written page. It was often cumbersome trying to read through them, especially when a lot of the excerpts were only a sentence or two long. I feel like the author was trying to convey a similar feeling between these chapters and the chapters which took part in the cemetery itself, but it ultimately came off as choppy and a little frivolous.
(For example, in Chapter V, there were eleven separate accounts – one after the other – which described the moon on the night that Willie Lincoln died. Yes, eleven. And all were slightly different.)
The second format, and the more interesting, was told in the voices from the denizens of the cemetery. It was told in an almost play-like format, but without the interference from an outside narrator setting the scene. Instead, the characters themselves did that. They were a numerous and lively (excuse the pun) bunch, colorful and interesting, who each lent their own voice to the story.
My biggest complaint about the book was that it was a tad hard to get into, especially listening to the audiobook. Although the audiobook utilized a cast of 166 voices (which is incredible!), if you forgot whose voice belonged to which character, then…tough luck. Though, for the most part, it didn’t take away from the overall meaning of the story if you switched up a character or two. Or most of them (at least the minor characters). Also, even though the text read like a play, the narrator’s name was not mentioned until after they spoke, which got especially confusing during long passages because I would have to skip to the end to see who was speaking, then proceed to read what they had said. That also took away a bit from the story itself.
Overall, this wasn’t a bad book. I thought the concept of the entire book was creative and unlike anything I’ve read before. The format, though sometimes unwieldy, gave a distinctive feel to the story. I loved the descriptions of the so-called “sick” characters (spoiler-not-spoiler: spirits) in the cemetery and their perceptions of the world. I loved the whole concept of this in-between place, this Bardo, where they were neither living nor dead. Each character had a different reason tethering them to their bodies and to the physical world, and I really enjoyed their backstories.
To me, this book rates as a solid 3 stars, though maybe an extra ½ star for creativity. But because of the choppy nature of the story and the often-confusing voices, I couldn’t justify rounding up to 4 stars.
Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for a free copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review!
Post Script… Select Audiobook Cast:
Post Script… Select Audiobook Cast:
This book utilized an unprecedented number of actors to read for each of the characters – 166 in total! The actors and actresses listed below (including the author) are linked to their IMDb pages for those, like me, who are not always able to put the face to the name.
There are many, many more talented people who lent their voices to the reading of this book, though not all are listed here.
- Nick Offerman = Hans Vollman
- David Sedaris = Roger Bevins III
- Carrie Brownstein = Isabelle Perkins
- George Saunders (author) = The Reverend Everly Thomas
- Miranda July = Mrs. Elizabeth Crawford
- Lena Dunham = Elise Traynor
- Ben Stiller = Jack Manders
- Julianne Moore = Jane Ellis
- Susan Sarandon = Mrs. Abigail Blass
- Bradley Whitford = Lieutenant Cecil Stone
- Bill Hader = Eddie Baron
- Megan Mullally = Betsy Baron
- Rainn Wilson = Percival “Dash” Collier
- Jeff Tweedy = Captain William Prince
- Kat Dennings = Ms. Tamara Doolittle
- Jeffrey Tambor = Professor Edmund Bloomer
- Mike O’Brien = Lawrence T. DeCroix
- Keegan-Michael Key = Elson Farwell
- Don Cheadle = Thomas Havens
- Patrick Wilson = Stanley “Perfesser” Lippert
- Kerby Heyborn = Willie Lincoln
- Mary Karr = Mrs. Rose Milland
- Cassandra Campbell = Narrator
- …and many more!